06.09.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Afghanistan Withdrawal Puts the US-Europe Ties On the Line


While the return of the “wise” and “experienced” Biden to the White House in 2021 was expected to be a pleasant change from the “erratic” and “unstable” era of Donald Trump, the extremely unstable nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan – which remarkably tells the state of crisis the US polity has been in for the last many years – has quickly vanished the euphoria of Biden’s victory. Contrary to the hopes that many in Europe expresses after Trump was defeated, the “wise” Biden – who was quick to declare that the US is “back” – has, as was expected, failed to reverse the course of the ultimate decline of the US supremacy. As irony would have it, the “wise” and “experienced” Biden has only accelerated the pace of decline, which further shows that the US downfall is a function of structural changes – the US suffering from hegemonic fatigue, other states, including the EU, acquiring more power and asserting strategic autonomy — than some idiosyncratic factors. Europe’s response to the crisis equally shows its growing frustration with the US led system of global hegemony.

“It’s a failure of the Western world and it’s a game-changer for international relations,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, adding that “The EU must be able to intervene to protect our interests when the Americans don’t want to be involved.” Former British PM, Theresa May, chastised the Boris administration, saying “Did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right?” While many European states, including the EU, have refused to shoulder the responsibility for taking Afghan refugees because the US did not discuss the withdrawal with them, it remains that internal disagreement reflects a growing crisis of US leadership and Europe’s over dependence on the US for its foreign policy decisions. It’s time, argue many European diplomats and politicians, including Macron and Merkel, Europe started formulating its own policies, and have a security infrastructure independent of the US.

As a report in Carnegie Europe recently noted, the US-Europe relation, given the debacle that the war and withdrawal has been in Afghanistan, will remain “one sided” unless “Europeans start thinking strategically. This means taking an unjaundiced look at its capabilities, at its intelligence structures, at its different cultures that inhibit cohesion and solidarity, and the aims of development aid.”

As it stands, the withdrawal has intensified the debate in Europe about a “European army.” As Borrell remarked, “It’s clear that the need for more European defence has never been as much as evident as today after the events in Afghanistan”, adding that “There are events that catalyse the history. Sometimes something happens that pushes the history, it creates a breakthrough and I think the Afghanistan events of this summer are one of these cases.”

While the debate in Europe is not per se about replacing NATO, it does show that the EU is preparing to position itself more independently of the US without having to plunge into every war that Uncle Sam conceives and starts in the future. While NATO would continue to exist, its relevance, however, will undergo a major shift once the EU develops an internal consensus around an “EU army” and an autonomous foreign policy approach – institutions, which in the words of Borrell, the continent can rely on to pursue its own objectives in the wake of American “disengagement.”

Borrell is hardly the only one in Europe. In Germany, Armin Laschet, who is running to replace his Christian Democratic colleague Angela Merkel as chancellor in national elections this month, speaks of “the greatest debacle NATO has suffered since its founding.” Last week, Bernard Guetta, a member of the European Parliament from the party of President Emmanuel Macron of France, called on Europeans to find a geostrategic substitute for an increasingly inward-looking United States.

Guetta has been advocating making Europe a “strategic player”, believing that “The Union can have a Common Defence because it would only have to accelerate an evolution that has been underway for six years, and the Union must do so because if its capitals remained incapable of building up a real Defence, the United States would have no reason to come to the rescue of such allies.”

As it stands, the Afghan drawdown (the debacle) has clearly sharpened the existing fault lines in the US-European ties. Whereas these ties had always existed, even during the heyday of Cold War, the European continent no longer has to ally with an anti-communist US to tackle a communist threat from the east. Although Europe-Russia relations are far from friendly, there is a growing realisation in Europe to develop their relations with Russia independently of the US. This is evident from the way the Germans were able to withstand the US pressure with regards to cancelling the Nord Stream-2 project. The fact that Biden, who once called the project a “threat” to European security, withdrew its opposition in the face of German assertion has only emboldened the Europeans to think more actively as an active and independent player, capable of setting or influencing the agenda setting in transatlantic ties.

This realisation is at the heart of France’s refusal to buy the US plans to counter China globally. In fact, when Macron reminded Biden that NATO is an Atlantic, not a Pacific alliance, he basically drew people’s attention to a growing distance, a wedge, between Europe and the US foreign policy objectives and priorities.

However, even though NATO was/is an Atlantic alliance, it remains that the Afghanistan war has taught it a bitter lesson: it was forced into a war it didn’t want to fight, and then it was forced to end the same war in a manner it did not want to. The search for an alternative system with roots in Europe becomes inevitable. The American search for militarising the QUAD in the face of Europe’s refusal to challenge China is equally telling.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.